Crisis or opportunity?

By Aldo Civico (for Safe Democracy)

Aldo Civico compares the collusion between politicians and paramilitaries in Colombia, to the Mafia-controlled government of Palermo in the 1970s. In Civico‘s opinion, a lot can be learned from Sicily‘s two decade long struggle against Mafia-induced corruption. The revelation of the well known, yet never publicized paramilitary involvement in Colombian politics should be used as an opportunity to rally behind the judges who brought the truth to light, and to take civic action in support of a deeper and more mature democracy.

Aldo Civico, an anthropologist, has been conducting fieldwork about the paramilitary in Colombia since 2001. He is currently writing a book as a result of his research. In 2006, he published Portrait of a Paramilitary in the edited volume Engaged Observers (Rutgers University Press). Mr. Civico is currently a research associate at the Columbia University Center for International Conflict Resolution and a senior adviser to the Project of Justice in Time of Transition.

AS THE NEWS MEDIA CONTINUES TO BE CLOGGED WITH UPDATES ON THE WAR IN IRAQ, Colombia is currently in the middle of one of its severest political crises in decades: several prominent politicians have been found to have long-standing, intimate relations with the drug-trafficking Colombian paramilitary.

The close ties between politics and the paramilitary have been lying at the very core of power politics in Colombia for some time, contributing to a system of corruption and greed. And as negotiations between the Colombian government and Paramilitary leaders continue to slog along (following President Uribe’s transfer of the unwilling leaders to a high-security prison in Medellin), the current danger is not that the skeletons come out of the closet, but that they be locked inside forever, thus perpetuating the stagnation of democracy.

Yet this crisis is a time of opportunity. Indeed, the citizens of Colombia (including those living abroad) can now play a pivotal role in rallying behind the judges who uncovered the scandal and pressing President Uribe to face the issue head-on, rather than hiding it as he has proposed doing in the name of a supposed national interest to preserve order and democratic institutions. This is not the time for a state of emergency, but for civic engagement.

While shuffling through the crude chronicles of Colombian corruption, I recollect the years I spent in Sicily, Italy, working as a senior advisor to the Mayor of Palermo Leoluca Orlando. Orlando is a renowned anti-mafia leader. That time of my life was both painful and exciting: painful, because of the martyrdom of judges like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, exciting, because of the sudden awakening of civil society in Palermo. In this uncertain hour for Colombia, the example of Palermo’s struggle against the Mafia in the 1980s could be of inspiration.

Italy’s democracy has been mortified for decades by the intertwining of Mafia and politics. Giovanni Falcone, the renowned mafia-fighter killed by Cosa Nostra in 1992, used to define the government collusion as the third level of the Mafia, which defined its true essence. Cosa Nostra operated both inside and outside the state with complete impunity, producing a large system of corruption. They backed Vito Ciancimino, a smalltime businessman from Corleone, to become the mayor of Palermo in 1958, and gave power to Salvatore Lima, close ally of the seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Together, Ciancimino and Lima increased the Mafia’s power of intervention into Italian politics.

The Mafia protected its economic and political interest in all aspects of Sicilian and Italian society. No building contractors were allowed to build without Mafia approval, and no elections outcomes hit the newspapers until tweaked by Mafia officials. And it was not until the courageous dedication of honest judges unmasked the corrupt system, that democracy in Sicilian politics was able to make a comeback during the 1990s.

Equally significant were the initiatives of thousands of citizens in Palermo, who dared to reject the law of silence imposed by the Mafia and showed their open solidarity for anti-mafia judges, denouncing the collusion of politics with the mafia. Citizens initiated hu-man chains encircling the Palace of Justice, displayed bed sheets from their homes with anti-mafia slogans, and promoted conferences in schools and churches. They reclaimed the public sphere for themselves, forcefully demanding justice and truth. Those were the years of the so called Spring of Palermo: from Vito Ciancimino to Leoluca Orlando, the city had accomplished a tremendous journey.

As in Italy, the collaboration of paramilitaries and politicians in Colombia was hardly a secret. Reports by the United Nations and several human rights groups, all ignored by President Uribe, had been hinting at this alliance for quite some time. The conspiracy was no secret; but it was a public secret, defined as that which is known but cannot be verbalized.

Now, only a vibrant community of citizens genuinely interested in the common good of Colombia can transform this crisis into an opportunity for the foundation of a deeper and more mature democracy.

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